It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights, it's time to meet the Muppets in Astoria tonight! The recently renovated Museum of Moving Image is the last stop on a multicity tour for the Smithsonian traveling exhibition Jim Henson's Fantastic World, which opens this Saturday, July 16.
If you're as obsessed with the Muppets as I am (I am seriously counting down the days until the new movie movie opens in November), you'll love this incredible retrospective of the Muppet master's work. The coolest thing about the exhibit (aside from seeing Miss Piggy and Kermit up close!) is that it explores Henson's career beyond his signature creations. Long before he came to Sesame Street, he was an aspiring New Yorker cartoonist, an Oscar nominated experimental filmmaker and an adman with a knack for comic commercials.
While kids may not be as fascinated by the archival photos, storyboards, sketches, posters and other artifacts as parents, the exhibit is smartly designed, with a cute alcove where children can watch a montage of clips while mom and dad delve deeper. Plus, the lineup of hands-on workshops and screenings—many free with museum admission—should excite even the youngest Muppets' fans.
To get to the exhibit, you walk up two flights of gleaming white stairs (the museum's new aesthetic reminds me of an Apple Store). Before entering the intimate gallery, pause on the mezzanine to watch Time Piece, a 1965 live-action short written, directed and starring Henson. It's a psychedelic trip full of non-sequiturs and kooky (at times, risqué) imagery, without a Muppet in sight. It's fascinating that the only Academy Award nomination Henson ever earned was for this avant-guard flick.
Upstairs, you're greeted by a detailed timeline of Henson's career and a large screen which juxtaposes multiple clips of his work simultaneously. The exhibit is organized (more or less) chronologically. First come his gleeful childhood sketches and some of his more serious art work (who knew he could paint landscapes?). Vintage photos show Henson and his collaborators, including eventual wife Jane, working on early incarnations of the Muppets, like Kermit (who debuted in 1955) and Rowlf, who was originally made for a '60s Purina Dog Chow commercial. There are also storyboards, posters, a small section on The Dark Crystal (one of my favorites), info about aborted projects and plenty of other memorabilia. (Apparently Henson kept absolutely everything.)
The most engaging section for young kids is the Sesame Street area. Although there are no hands-on activities here, there are plenty of photos of their furry pals, and there are actual Muppets (enclosed in glass cases) throughout the exhibit, including Bert and Ernie, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the stars of the classic "Mahna Mahna" sketch, which debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show and was reprised years later on The Muppet Show.
Although there are more than 120 artifacts, the entire exhibit should only take about 30 minutes to walk through. If your kids get restless while you read the info cards (which are packed with interesting tidbits rendered in the cutest Muppet-like font), send them to the screening area at the end of the exhibit. There, they can sit on cushy, colorful cylinders and watch clips from The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and more.
While the exhibit is on view, the museum will host family screenings every weekend at 1pm that are free with admission. This opening weekend you can catch The Muppet Movie. Upcoming screenings include:
The Dark Crystal - Saturday, Aug 6, Sunday, August 7, Saturday, August 13 and Sunday, August 14 at 1pm
The Muppets Take Manhattan - Saturday, August 20 - Sunday, August 21 at 1pm
Muppet Treasure Island - Saturday, August 27 and Sunday, August 28 at 1pm
The Great Muppet Caper - Saturday, September 3 and Sunday, September 4 at 1pm
Plus other more obscure projects and compilations of rare footage.
There will also be post-screening puppet-making workshops on selected dates. These cost a minimal fee ($5-$10) and should be booked in advance. Here's the complete schedule.
Jim Henson's Fantastic World is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image through March 4, 2012. Free with museum admission: $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 3-18, free for kids under 3.
Read about other current kid-friendly exhibits around NYC.